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Posted: August 20, 2009

“D9” and “The Time Traveler’s Wife”

One for the guys and one for the gals

Dave Taylor

This week, the two films I'll focus on are "District 9" and "The Time Traveler's Wife,” and they're both almost archetypal gender-focused films: "D9" (as it's already called by fans) is a guy's film, and "Time Traveler's Wife" is a gal's film. Let me explain...

REVIEW: “The Time Traveler's Wife”
There are lots of movies about time travel, from the asinine “Land of the Lost” to the political “The Time Machine,” to the edgy “12 Monkeys.” Most of those have a gizmo or contraption that enables time travel, but what if you just "hopped" without having any control over it?  One minute you were in contemporary Manhattan then in the blink of an eye you were in ‘60s Los Angeles in the middle of a Vietnam war protest march?

That's the basic concept behind “The Time Traveler's Wife,” based on the tremendously popular book of the same name by Audrey Niffenegger. The story wrestles with what it would be like for a time traveler to establish and sustain a relationship, all the while knowing that at any moment he could vanish and reappear minutes, hours, or weeks later.

Henry bounces back and forth through time, first meeting up with the wealthy but apparently lonely and sheltered Clare Abshire (played as a child by Brooklynn Proulx and as an adult by Rachel McAdams) when she's six and he's an adult. Then he weaves in and out of her life knowing that they meet and marry (or does he create the idea in her mind that future Henry is her perfect match, thereby influencing the future?).

Henry works as a research librarian in Chicago, though presumably he has frequent absences from work as he time travels without any ability to control it. His travels all seem to be somehow related to his own history, however, and indeed at one point in the film he observes "I often go back to the same places, to places that are important to me, it's kind of like gravity or something."

But I couldn't shake the disturbing relationship between the adult Henry and the child Clare. When he first arrives, she's playing in a meadow far from the family estate (Clare is an only child and her parents are quite wealthy) and she is quite reasonably startled to hear a voice from out of the bushes. She hands him her picnic blanket and he comes out, wrapped only in the blanket and clearly naked underneath.

As you would hope, she says, "I should tell my parents about you!" to which Henry responds, "Wait, don't call your parents," and then encourages her to steal clothes from her Dad "that he won't miss" and leave them in the forest for him. She does, and that's supposed to be romantic?  To me, that's alarming, not romantic at all.

There are some very nice scenes in the film, including one touching moment when Henry travels back in time to when he was three and meets his mother Annette (played by the exotic Michelle Nolde) on the “El,” Chicago's elevated commuter train system. After a short exchange he looks at her and says, "Your son loves you very much," to which she responds, "I know," and vanishes as he stands on the platform watching her.

With younger and older Henry showing up throughout the otherwise linear narrative of the film, a number of interesting questions are raised and, occasionally, addressed by the supporting cast, including the warm best friend Gomez (Ron Livingston). Minutes before Clare and Henry get married, Henry vanishes, but then an older Henry appears for the ceremony. Did she marry contemporary Henry or future Henry and if so, are there any implications?  A cool dilemma unexamined in the film.

Ultimately The Time Traveler's Wife was a well-assembled romantic film about how love overcomes all challenges. But it left me empty and unengaged. I was frustrated that the basic hook was not used in a more interesting fashion and that Clare and the rest so quickly got bored with what would be an astonishing capability, rife with different narrative directions that director Robert Schwentke could have taken, but didn't. And that's too bad.

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REVIEW: "District 9"
Wow. That was my first word when this astonishing, intense hard sci-fi exploration of prejudice and apartheid ended. Director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson have crafted a fascinating film that, while flawed, is a significant new addition to the ranks of serious science fiction movies, along with “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “The Matrix,” and the like.

Bookended with opening and closing documentary-style footage, District 9 posits a race of extraterrestrials whose interstellar craft mysteriously breaks down over Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1980s. After weeks of indecision, humans force their way into the ship, just to find the aliens dying of hunger. They're rescued, but they're sufficiently different that they are forced to live in terrible slums and suffer the ridicule and abuse of mankind.

Almost thirty years have passed since then and the aliens, known derogatorily as "prawns,” 1.8 million of them, are still trapped in the slum called "District 9". Problem is, the aliens wander off their fenced security area, incidents between humans and prawns are increasing, and humans are getting killed.

It's decided that the aliens need to be relocated to a new fenced-in village, District 10, that's further from the city and Halliburton-esque military contractor Multi-National United (MNU) is hired to do the job. To keep it all "legal", however, they are required to serve eviction notices to the current residents of District 9, led by MNU agent Wikus van der Merwe (very well played by first-time actor Sharlto Copley).

Problem is, it doesn't exactly go as planned...

The treatment of the aliens by humans is shocking in this movie; they're treated as the lowest scum who have no feelings, no social structure and no motivation. At one point it's explained that they're "workers" and lack a leader, but many times I winced as a human would kick, punch or otherwise hurt a prawn.  It's supposed to be shocking, of course, and indeed, the point of the film is to explore how humans can torment and be so monstrous to each other.

Lackluster bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe starts out as a complete dork, fumbling the microphone when he's interviewed about the relocation project, then trying unsuccessfully to face down Koobus Venter (David James), the tough military commander of the relocation effort. As the film progresses, he finds that he's becoming sympathetic to the aliens and begins to understand their plight and assist them in their attempts to finally leave the Earth.

The South African setting is perfect for the film in many ways, not the least of which is the country's own history of apartheid and racial tension, that's both mirrored other parts of Africa and demonstrated that effort and desire can unite a people split apart, can create a powerful nation where there were a dozen different local tribes and foreign invaders. In addition, the Afrikaans and almost-English South African accents and actors make for a film that does feel foreign, particularly when compared to the oft-banal product of the Hollywood machine.

At its heart, though, “District 9” is not a preachy documentary about the ills of apartheid but an intense action film with numerous sequences of violence, aggression and special effects throughout that were so good that not once during the film did I even question the basic premise of the movie. The aliens always look alien, scary and disturbing, even as they spoke in clicks and whistles (subtitled in English for us humans) and dripped mysterious liquids from their strange carapaces.

There's also a lot of gore in the film once it moves into its second act. The alien weapons are definitely not "clean, surgical strike" devices and it was with the satisfaction of a well-done scene in a horror film that I watched many of the subsequent scenes in District 9. I can't over-emphasize that even in the bloodiest scenes how well assembled this movie actually is. The special effects are flawless, the visual feel of the faux documentary work perfectly, and while it's an intense experience, it's also an amazing one.

The supporting cast is good, albeit perhaps too many of them served more as stereotypes than actual fully-fleshed-out characters in the film, notably Wikus's wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood) and her duplicious father Piet Smith (Louis Minnaar).

There are so many great scenes later in the film that I want to write about, but I also have tried mightily to avoid spoiling this cool film for you. Blomkamp and especially composer Clinton Shorter and cinematographer Trent Opaloch have created an amazing, tough and exciting film that operates both as a treatise on race relations and a thrilling action film.

Just go see it. But don't take your kids.
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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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